IN unusually hot weather, we explored on foot the famed, 1,000-year-old city of Dubrovnik (I don’t think that there is any other option), taking the audio guide of the city walls.
As you walk from turret to turret of the huge, limestone embattlements, the continuum of views of sea, islands, mountains, orange rooftops and enticing streetscapes is beyond description, and walking around the entire city, looking down on it from all possible angles, means that you really get your bearings, both physically and historically.
Cruise-ship season starts earlier and earlier every year, and on the day of our visit there were five cruise ships in the port, each one disgorging 2,000 visitors to cram the streets of the Pearl of the Adriatic.
In spite of the crowds, the tour is enjoyable and it gives you a fascinating insight into the city in which people’s humble abodes exist alongside ancient historical buildings, and through whose grid-patterned streets pass millions of pairs of feet, polishing the shiny, white-marble pavestones.
The view from the walls allows you to see just how much this city and this country have moved on from the dark days of 1991/92, when Dubrovnik was besieged by big guns, warships and fighter planes from their neighbours in Serbia and Montenegro.
Information panels on the city walls allow you to identify the newer roof tiles ( the vast majority), that replaced the older ones destroyed by war. The Croatians had only light arms with which to fight back, but they had numerical superiority and they held the higher ground.
The story of the defence of the city is told in the large Napoleonic fort overlooking Dubrovnik, which is accessed by cable car.
Inside its bullet-and-shell pockmarked exterior, copious displays of photos, weaponry, maps and videos in cold, damp rooms give you a sobering insight into this most nasty of conflicts, in which the enemy descended upon the besieged inhabitants from a short drive up the road.
We took that short route on a smooth highway which skirted a dramatic and gorgeous coastline that made you feel like bursting into song; past the neat resort towns,of Plat and Cavtat, which were busy with large groups of foreign students, presumably on spring break from college.
Driving in Croatia is a far more pleasant experience than you might think. The courtesy and discipline of Croatian drivers defies the general rule of thumb that the further south you get, the more erratic the driving.
And for a country that was in bitter warfare such a short time ago, it has the look of being very smart, rich and well-organised, with evidently higher standards of road-building than we have in Ireland.
The border crossing consists of two checkpoints, with about half a kilometre of a no-mans-land of closed-down “duty-free shops” between the two.
At each crossing, you are reminded that in this part of Europe, which was once one country, the borders are real: where guards stop and check everybody and stamp your passport.
It’s something that you don’t get when you cross EU borders any more: that old image of the well-travelled person with his passports covered in the official stamps of so many countries — it’s nice to see that it’s still possible.
Once you cross into Montenegro, you notice an instant change: the Croatians had scrappage schemes similar to ours, but the Montenegrins didn’t, so there are a lot more bangers on the road. By comparison with smart, clean Croatia, it feels just a little bit older, dirtier and poorer.
There is also a lot of haphazard coastal development, similar to the poorer parts of Italy and the lumpy standards of road-building are similar to secondary roads in West Cork or Kerry.
After an half hour or so of driving, however, the place redeems itself in spades and you get a true sense of the famed beauty of the country, as ramshackle roadsides and nondescript villages give way, quite stunningly, to inlets with Alpine-like lakes backed up by towering verdant mountains. From this point, the coast road towards the city of Kotor is a twisty, bumpy, breathtakingly beautiful drive.
Kotor is the first town that feels like anything important in a country that increasingly feels like time has, if not quite forgotten it, then certainly mislaid it. The first impression of the city is not dramatic, as you approach the blackened exterior of the city wall that contrasts sharply with the polished limestone of Dubrovnik.
There’s a car park across the road by the marina and the city itself — accessible by foot — lies through a dramatically large gateway that takes you behind the dark walls to a beautiful, bustling ancient citadel.
Kotor feels a lot more authentic, in many ways, than Dubrovnik. Its sombre walls wear the scars of ancient battle. The port itself is at the head of a wide fjord that makes it feel protected and shut off from the rest of world, in contrast to Dubrovnik, which sits at the edge of a rugged, open coastland, looking out across the Adriatic sea, past dark-green islands.
Within the walls of the city, the narrow streets are more fun to explore than those of Dubrovnik. The problem is that Dubrovnik is all just a little... the same.
Each street and each building looks uniform from ground level. Kotor was built by the Venetians, while Dubrovnik was originally a rival city state.
Dubrovnik also suffered almost total ruin in an earthquake in 1667, so most of the city’s Renaissance buildings didn’t survive. The overall result is that Kotor is a much more diverse city architecturally and, even though it’s farther away from the Italian border, it’s much more Italian in style than Dubrovnik.
As well as that, the darker stone, and the fact that it hasn’t had war-induced restorations in the last 20 years, means that it has a slightly rougher, older and edgier feel to it.
It’s a lucky part of the world that has two such extraordinary cities so close to one another.
Dubrovnik is the bigger and bolder of the two and, seen from the air, it cuts a prettier picture than Kotor.
But, on the ground, it’s more difficult to choose and while Kotor doesn’t exude wealth to the same degree as its more illustrious Croatian neighbour, what it does have is drama and atmosphere.
Travel Aer Lingus ( www.aerlingus.com ) operates direct flights from Dublin to Dubrovnik four times a week from the end of March to the end of September.
We used Nova Rent-a-Car ( www.rentacarsplit.net ), who do very good rates from Dubrovnik airport, allowing you to drive across local borders in to Bosnia or Montenegro.
We stayed at the four-star Valamar Lacroma ( www.valamar.com ). Located in a quiet and stunningly beautiful end-of-peninsula beach location, this award-winning hotel (voted Croatia’s Leading Hotel at the World Travel Awards in 2013) offers excellent half-board offers with superb local facilities. The old walled city is a short journey on a regular bus from just outside the hotel.
The offshore Elaphite islands constitute another big attraction in the area, with regular ferry services from Dubrovnik to these totally unspoilt paradises.
Another island one should not miss is the famous “Our Lady of the Rocks” — a man-made island in the shape of a boat, complete with a church to where those who were saved from disaster flock to express their devotion to Mary, often leaving behind them mementos of their often incredible escape stories. It’s in Montenegro between Kotor and Dubrovnik.
Dubrovnik offers a multitude of choices — many of them expensive. Try Gavun on Iroka Street right in the middle of the Old City for very affordable lunch or dinner (HRK148/19 for two large pizzas and two cokes).
In Kotor, the influences are less internationalised and more based on their history of Italian, Turkish and Slavic flavours. For simple food extremely well done, try the family-run Cesarica, tucked away in the heart of the Old Town across the square from St Luke’s Church.
Dubrovnik does a great line in souvenirs and local crafts of a very high quality standard. For something a little different, check out Algoritam & Algebra on Placa Stradun (the main street). It’s a bookshop but with some great no-tack souvenirs, including fabulous masks that cost much less than the ones sold in Venice.
At the gates of the old city in Kotor and facing the wonderful harbour, there is an open market selling a great range in local food and craft — unbeatable for bargains and atmosphere. www.visit-montenegro.com and www.croatia.hr